Salt Production

Roman glass salt dishes

Up near the M5, in the area we call West Wick, in 2006 Persimmon built a new housing estate. To the casual eye the land looks poor, low lying, of little use. But West Wick has seen an interesting history from the Romano-British era through to the 13th Century.

Archaeological investigations prior to building produced a long list of seeds, and evidence of plants in what was a salt marsh with inter tidal mud flats Early farmers grew barley, wheat, corn, peas and beans. The weeds were represented by buttercup, dock, fat hen, blackberry, raspberry, scarlet pimpernel, knot grass, chickweed, bramble and stitchwort.

We know also that the sea level was lower in the Roman period and the summers hotter. This gave rise to an industry of salt production. Sea water was collected in large shallow pools, and concentrated by sun and wind, resulting in brine, which was heated in pits lined with local clay to refine it. By the Middle Ages sand washing had replaced this method.

Salt was collected from impregnated sand and silt left after high tides. They filtered this to separate the brine, then heated it in lead or iron pans to produce salt. This would be seasonal work, undertaken by the local community. The land, like most around North Somerset. was owned by the Church, in the person of the Bishop of Wells. Aelfric reminds us of how necessary salt was to preserve meat and fish. "Without salt butter and cheese would perish. It was used to cure heaviness of mind, toothache, as a charm, for curing leather, for soldiering joints and notable extensively for ecclesiastical purposes". It is likely salt from West Wick was transported to Banwell for the use of the Bishop of Wells.

By the 14th Century the activity was abandoned as a result of the drop in population following the Black Death, the decline of ecclesiastical authority over their estates and the deterioration of the climate after 1300 and increased flooding.

West Wick was once important for the preserving of meat and fish to feed the many in the winter. I hope the builders of the modern homes has paid good attention to the draining of the land, for as we realise sea levels can change over years.

Barbara Seaton

<b>A Roman soldier was paid in 'salt money'</b>
A Roman soldier was paid in 'salt money'